Steak 101 

A lesson on Idaho's No. 2 agricultural commodity

A sight for sore rib eyes.

Guy Hand

A sight for sore rib eyes.

The flavor of great steak, like the flavor of fine coffee, chocolate or cabernet sauvignon is one of life's deep, delicious and darkly subterranean flavors, a taste that can rock you to the bone like the bass line at a blues club.

That's no doubt why beef is Idaho's No. 2 agricultural commodity (behind dairy)--bringing in nearly a billion dollars in 2009--and why waiters so frequently recommend steak. There's nothing like the way meat eaters hunger for a deliciously primal, often bloody hunk of beef.

And there's nothing like the sense of betrayal that comes with bad steak. It seems to dishonor the West's cowpoke past and fails to consummate that perfect union between beef and Idaho spud--bad steak happens way too often. After suffering a string of insipid, beef-lite slabs, I begin to wonder if I've just been chasing char-grilled ghosts or some misbegotten memory of an archetypal steak I actually never ate. Then I sink my teeth into a great T-bone, and all that tasteless-steak frustration fades away. At least until next time.

Author and food writer Mark Schatzker had the same experience.

"Every time I'd go out and buy steak," he says, "it seemed to let me down. But every now and again, I would find myself eating a spectacular steak, and I had to question why." To find the answer, Schatzker sliced through rib eyes around the world--Scotland, France, Italy, Argentina, Japan and, yes, Idaho--then wrote Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef. In it he asks why this most beloved of proteins so often tastes like "grilled tap water."

"So why a book on steak?" I ask this Toronto-based writer in what turns out to be an enlightening phone conversation.

"Steak is the prestige meat," says Schatzker. "Steak is the king of meats. We have steakhouses. We don't have porkhouses or chickenhouses. Steak occupies a role, culturally speaking, that no other meat does. But oddly, we know very little about it--and I wanted to get to the bottom of steak."

It turns out the factors influencing steak flavor are varied and complex. For instance, grilled or roasted beef contains 340 "flavor compounds." An exalted red wine, say a Grand Cru Le Chambertin from Burgundy, has but 46 more. Yet, the wine world employs a voluminous vocabulary to describe every nuance in a pinot noir while beef has little more than the USDA's monosyllabic grading system--prime, choice, select--to describe its nearly equal complexity.

Not only that, Schatzker says, the USDA system is based on antiquated assumptions. Take the notion of marbling, the bedrock foundation of USDA grading. Abundant marbling--veins of fat that lace through a steak like the web of an overachieving spider--is required to classify beef as prime and is based on the seldom questioned gospel that fat equals flavor. Schatzker says it doesn't, at least not anymore.

"Throughout history," he says, "we have found that fatter cattle tend to taste better than skinnier cattle, but traditionally cattle gained weight slowly, on a diet of grass. In the last hundred years or so, we have gotten incredibly good at getting cattle fat very quickly, which is why we have the modern-day industrialized feed lot with steam-flaked corn, antibiotics and beta agonists [growth hormones] ... So marbling is no longer a good indication of quality."

In addition to the well-documented excesses associated with factory feedlots--stress, disease, unnatural diet and drugs--the sheer speed at which feedlots fatten cattle may be, according to Schatzker, a significant flavor deterrent. Simply taking the time, he says, to let cattle gain weight naturally, slowly, may be the most fundamental reason that great beef tastes that way.

That, too, flies in the face of USDA doctrine. American meat is graded by maturity as well as marbling, younger animals being considered more tender and therefore better tasting. Hence, the average American beef cow is sent to slaughter at 14 months. Too young, Schatzker says, for deep, bone-rattling flavor to develop.

"Think of veal," he says. "Veal doesn't have a lot of flavor. Well, the truth is, most of the beef that people are getting in steakhouses and buying in supermarkets and even at fine butcher shops is, in my opinion, closer to veal than true beef." Schatzker says that 50 years ago, American cattle grazed a full year longer, on average, before going to slaughter. One of the most memorable steaks he tried during his research was from a 10-year-old cow in France. In Japan, land of the revered Kobe beef, cattle are often raised for four full years before going to slaughter.

Schatzker does give credit to feedlot beef for one thing: consistency. During his travels, industrial beef never delivered the best steaks he ate, nor the worst. He credits standardized feedlot grain for infusing modern beef with a predictably uniform, if middling flavor. He likens industrial beef to jug wine. Both are consistent, relatively cheap, readily available and nearly always underwhelming.

In contrast, Schatzker's best and worst steaks were grass fed. That's because grass, compared to commodity grain, is so variable. Not only are there good and bad grasses, but good and bad times to forage cattle on them. Season--even time of day can--affect the flavor. Again, Schatzker sees a comparison to wine: "When you talk to people who do grass-fed beef, I mean it's like you're talking to a wine maker," Schatzker says. "They know more about grass in some ways than they do about beef. They're experts in their soil. They're experts in moisture. They're experts in varieties of grass ... and I would liken it to winemaking because the ones that have good land and know what they're doing produce a product that is beautiful."

Schatzker says Idaho rancher Glenn Elzinga is one of those producers of beautiful beef. In the last chapter of his book, Schatzker visits Elzinga's ranch in the Pahsimeroi Valley, between Challis and Salmon, and finds the mineral-rich soils, the native grasses, the frosty nights all add up to beef with a uniquely Idaho terroir--a sense of place you can taste.

You can also see Elzinga's ranch land from space. It's that chunk of central Idaho near the Montana border that looks as if a giant cougar had clawed three deep gouges into the state's rocky flesh. It's classic basin and range country--the kind of grand geology that would get the likes of John Huston or John McPhee all misty-eyed--with three high, arid valleys locked in line by snow-capped, 10,000- to 11,000-foot peaks. It's the kind of Western landscape that Schatzker says gives Elzinga's beef its delicious flavor.

"In fact," Schatzker says, "I think the so-called terroir effect is more pronounced with steak than it is with wine ... When you've got the right land, like Glenn does, it's as though you're tasting the land through the beef."

When I visited Elzinga's land several years ago, he and his family were living one cougar gouge east of the Pahsimeroi, in the Lemhi Valley. The sky there was that deep, cloudless Idaho blue that goes nearly outer-space black at night. The grass was electric green. And Elzinga was on horseback, separating his new calves from their mooing mothers.

"I just wonder if they know it's this time of year," Elzinga said as he worked his way between cattle and calves, "and they get that sinking feeling that this is the day, this is the day we must part ways."

Cowpoke-lean, his Stetson shading a bushy, Wild Bill mustache, Elzinga was all but apologetic as he ushered calves through the gate to new pasture. "Sometimes we call it Glenn and Caryl's counseling center for wayward cows."

If Elzinga and his wife had been typical ranchers, their relationship to that herd would have been short-lived. They'd have sent those cattle to faraway feedlots to fatten them up quickly and efficiently on a diet of grain, antibiotics and growth hormones. At 14 months, those cattle would have been slaughtered.

After moving to the Pahsimeroi Valley, the Elzingas didn't quit coddling their cattle. Their calves spend nearly an extra year living solely on the pastures where many of them were born. They never touch grain or--since they're certified organic--antibiotics or growth hormones.

And then there's the ground beneath their hooves.

"The soils are kind of interesting here," Elzinga says of the Pahsimeroi, "because when you look at the ground, you think, 'Wow, they grow potatoes here.' When you look closely you find out that the potatoes are very heavy--because they're rocks. It's just rock after rock after rock."

Combine that with the fact that the 5,000-foot-elevation Pahsimeroi Valley gets a sniveling eight or nine inches of rain a year--qualifying it as desert--and you might think it's not a place to grow much of anything, let alone T-bones. Elzinga found out differently. The soil is packed with minerals.

"When you run water through anything," Elzinga says, "it's like running water through a coffee filter; you get coffee out the other end. And what happens with the soils is the same thing. You get minerals out the other end, and those things are lost from the soil when it rains. Here it doesn't rain, and as a result we have thousands of years of this soil just sitting."

A long-time rancher from the valley once told Elzinga that those highly mineralized soils, combined with frosty temperatures that help fix sugars in plants (the Pahsimeroi gets a mere 45 frost-free days a year), make the grasses grow, in that old-timer's words, "hard." That's apparently a good thing. For whatever reason, the Pahsimeroi produces fat, tasty cattle.

Schatzker conducted a steak taste test for slate.com a few years ago. He included both wet and dry aged, prime commodity beef; deeply marbled, Kobe-stye Wagyu beef; naturally raised grain-fed beef; and Elzinga's grass-fed beef. Elzinga's won.

Over the 17 years Elzinga has been raising and finishing cattle on pasture, he admits having raised "some down-right rancid-flavored grass-fed beef." But he also learned a lot about the variability of grass, uncovered some nearly lost wisdom from back when all cattle were grass fed and even came up with a few new ideas himself.

Back when I first visited him, Elzinga said, "Really, I'm a grass farmer," as he walked through a pasture with two of his then youngest daughters. "This grass is the foundation of my entire operation."

Elzinga pulled up a shaft of grass himself, and thoughtfully gave it a chew.

"I think that wherever you get farther detached from the original way things were--like cattle originally ate grass--you know, fish swam in the ocean. And now we're farming fish. The more we remove these animals from the original things that they were meant to eat, the more and more concerns we're going to see as we eat them."

Subsequent scares over mad cow disease at feedlots and studies that prove grass-fed beef to be richer in healthful omega-3 fatty acids than feedlot beef confirm Elzinga's belief.

But rancher Elzinga had other reasons for growing grass-fed beef.

"It's a place to raise not only these cattle, but my family," he said as his two daughters began chasing each other through the grass. "And they're just my No. 1 priority. We have fun. We eat together and spend a lot of time together and, really, that's why I'm here. It's for these kids."

One daughter smiled a mischievous smile, then yanked a handful of grass out by the roots, tossing it at her sister. The other, in retaliation, tackled the first and both dropped to the ground. Elzinga quietly removed his Stetson, then dove in. You wouldn't see that on a feedlot.

After meeting the Elzingas and similar small beef producers around the world, Schatzker changed the goal of his book. The notion of steak terroir, that a great porterhouse from Idaho could have an excellent, if distinctive flavor; that a rancher, like a winemaker, could have great vintage years--in effect the beefy equivalent of a 2005 Bordeaux--well, that just flew in the face of commodity beef's belief in unwavering uniformity and enthralled Schatzker. He abandoned his original quest "for the world's tastiest piece of beef."

"By the end of the book," he says, "I came to realize that it's not the best steak I'm after, it's the variety of steaks that I'm after. I get excited by the fact that a steak tastes different here in Ontario than it does there in Idaho."

On the second to last page of Steak, Schatzker writes: "Steak remains a mystery. Its greatness is, at best, only dimly understood. The one secret the world has mastered is how to produce steak in the greatest possible volume. But a few people [like Idaho's Glenn Elzinga] have taken up the fight for quality ... The story, really, has just begun."

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